What we do when “This couldn’t happen here”, does happen?
Once again, the world has been shocked by an act of terror which has claimed many lives and injured scores of others. But that it has happened, not in some remote or far off location, but right here at home in Manchester; and that it occurred at a concert attended by families and children just like ours, brings home to us again that the world in which we live can be a dangerous place.
This age of social media has meant that the average citizen is exposed to many national and personal tragedies, shootings and bombings on our TV’s, computers and phones. It seems unbelievable when it happens.
But how much more unbelievable it must be to the people who are directly involved. One comment repeated in almost every situation is “We didn’t think something like this could happen here.” While we are all painfully aware that tragedies occur, we insulate ourselves by assuming that they happen to “other people”, or “somewhere else”.
So when tragedy does strike, there is often a sense of disbelief. Many of the assumptions that we held about our life or our world can be instantly violated and shattered, causing an surprising intensity of insecurity and anxiety.
It is important to remember that “a crisis is not an event; a crisis is a reaction to any event.” This bombing is a traumatic and tragic event. The individual or community’s reaction to the situation constitutes the crisis. A crisis occurs when a person’s coping mechanisms are overwhelmed. This explains why, in one and the same situation, some people seem to cope well and handle things, while others appear to fall apart.
The challenge for survivors is to reconnect fragments is to make meaning of their present symptoms in the light of past events. For those caught up in the tragedy, it will be about the power of “speaking the unspeakable”. Some situations seem too terrible to mention or even utter aloud. We find ourselves unable to process the reality of what has happened or put it into words. But atrocities refuse to be buried. Almost as powerful as the desire to banish them from our thinking is the realization that denial does not work for long.
Appropriate grieving allows people and communities to recover, to heal, to learn and to grow. Four things will be important for those affected by the Manchester tragedy in the coming weeks and months.
- The Re-establishment of safety
Trauma robs its victims of a sense of power and control. Realizing that we were unable to control and are now unable to undo what has happened, or recover what has been lost, often undermines one’s sense of competence.
Thus, any intervention must begin by reassuring the individual that they will be OK. In an instant, their world has become an unsafe place, and this important factor needs to be understood and addressed before anything else can be achieved.
- Reconstructing the trauma
The second stage is will be more cognitive, by which I mean “capable of knowledge”. It is with a sense of safety established that the person feels able to begin telling the story of what happened. Tragic events cannot be avoided, as much as we might like to think they can, and there are no quick solutions. People basically need information about the loss of a tragic event: What happened? What does it mean for me? How does it affect me? What can I do?
This provides the opportunity to offer education as to what the person can expect and what the effects of trauma and grief can be. This fundamental understanding will legitimize the process that the person is going through and lets them know that their emotions and reactions while complex and difficult are in fact natural.
- Reacting to the feelings
The telling of the story in words inevitably plunges the person into profound grief. Frequently, people resist mourning, not only out of fear, but also out of pride. We want people to think we can “handle it” and surrendering to emotions is often difficult.
People progress best when their feelings are legitimized and validated. The attitudes, reactions and support of others around them will be powerful influences on their journey of grief.
Retelling the story makes the incident a part of the survivor’s experience, but only one part of it. It may even occur to the survivor that this crisis does not have to define, far less destroy them. However, a word of caution, this counselling must be done with care by those who understand the dangers and triggers of trauma.
- Empowering the survivors
The major goal in the treatment of post-traumatic responses is the empowerment of survivors in light of their trauma by enabling them to gain some sense of control over their lives now as well as throughout the remainder of their lives that will mitigate to some degree the feelings of helplessness.
The lives of many thousands of people have been changed forever by the events in Manchester. Coping with victimization is a process that involves rebuilding the assumptive world that has been shattered and incorporating into one’s own identity the experience that “stuff happens” … even in Manchester.
As Winston Churchill said in another of England’s darkest hours, “We shall draw from the heart of suffering itself the means of inspiration and survival. We shall never give up … never, never, never!”